Wildland Firefighting 101

By Demetrius Kastros

The wildland fire environment has proven to be a dangerous one. We must always pay close attention to basic fundamentals that control the outcome of these fires. Safety, conditions, tactics, resources and time are critical factors.

Safety is the only priority; the rest is just part of the job. Safety begins with size-up, and size-up begins long before dispatch. Size-up, the continual assessment and recalculation of your situation, begins when you get up in the morning. The first thing I always did as a BC each morning was check the weather report for the day. If the prediction is for sunshine, temperatures in the 90s, and easterly winds of 10 to 20 miles per hour (mph) on an August day, then you should already have considerable knowledge of how those conditions will affect any fire behavior in your area that day. You can request resources accordingly to maintain a safe firefighting environment; this avoids having the incident magnify and become a cluster. Knowing what the weather will be doing is basic to any incident action plan (IAP), be it for wildland, hazmat, structure fires, and so on.

Protective wildland firefighting clothing is essential to safety. Proper protective clothing provides protection without being too cumbersome. There are several materials available including NOMEX, PBI, and a more recent material called SPENDEX that provide fire-resistive protection for outer shell clothing. Whatever you buy, make sure it meets all the proper standards from the National Fire Protection Association and is very fire resistive. I do not agree with the notion that cotton fabric provides much outer shell protection. Yet, there are wildland firefighting clothing lines on the market made of cotton fabrics.

Unlike structural turnouts, wildland firefighting clothing does not inherently provide an insulation or thermal barrier from radiant heat. The clothing worn beneath the outer garment requires important considerations. Firefighters, particularly in municipal departments, often wear uniform pants and shirts that can contain 65 percent polyester material. In a fire, this stuff melts and can stick to your skin!

All too often, firefighters are wearing uniforms beneath their protective clothing because they’re in too much of a hurry to get to the fire. We tend to loosely throw on protective clothing over our uniforms without taking that extra time to first don appropriate undergarments like cotton denim pants and long-sleeve, plain white cotton shirts. There are now newer undergarments of fire-resistive materials that breathe very well. If you're out of quarters when you get the dispatch, stop the rig, pull over, remove your uniforms, and put on appropriate under and outer garments before proceeding to the fire. That's one of the reasons we invented enclosed cabs—so you don’t have to strip off your uniform along the sidewalk, which generates angry phone calls to overstressed chiefs. Nice looking uniforms are fine for public appearances and such; they have no place on the fireground.

Proper fire-resistive pants and shirts are just the start. Every person on scene also needs to have an appropriate helmet with chin strap and pull-down shroud, hood, eye protection, respirator mask, and fire shelter. Comfortable, high-top boots without metal toe protection complete your equipment. And please ensure all personnel have a portable radio. With all the grants and funding sources out there, no firefighter in the United States should be on any emergency scene without a portable radio!

Conduct regular fire shelter training with as many smoke ejectors blowing air over the trainees as possible. You need to train personnel in how to get into their shelter fast in strong wind conditions. Without strong winds, it is far less likely shelter deployment would be necessary. Fire shelters are your last line of escape, so know them well.

Important note: Never presume things are completely safe just because you are in a BASE camp. I worked at the 175,000-acre (270 square miles) Big Sur, California, Basin Complex fire in 2008. A large BASE was established to support the 2,000 firefighters assigned to the incident. Many days into the suppression efforts, when things in BASE tend to lull into a routine, one part of the fire decided not to obey the IAP and made a change in direction, threatening the camp; flames got within a few hundred yards. This can be a bit of an issue since a BASE designed to support that large a force can't just quickly pack up and move down the road. Only a very aggressive ground and helicopter assault stopped the threat, thanks in part by using the nearby Pacific Ocean as a water source, which allowed for quick turnaround times for the copters.

(1) When you’re in BASE (like this one at 2008’s Big Sur, California’s, Basin Complex Fire) and see something like this approaching, the fire may not quite be going as anticipated in the IAP. NEVER assume that just because you are in BASE camp you’re in a completely safe environment. Keep your protective equipment close at all times! The look on this battalion chief’s face says it all. (Photos and Figure by author.)

 

Without question, safety transcends all aspects of any wildland fire. Proper protective clothing, with adequate layers beneath is essential. To carry the radio, hose clamps, fire shelter, canteen, and items a wildland firefighter needs, an appropriate pack harness is necessary. Several are on the market. Later in this article, I will address many of the other issues that affect wildland fire scene safety.

 

Conditions

We all know that fuel, weather, and topography affect wildland fire behavior. Weather is the only condition that can change without warning. Any command officer responding with an initial attack team of personnel and engines should anticipate the fire conditions based on your personal knowledge of the area and the weather reports you read that morning.

Area familiarity is a vital factor in your response considerations. You can have a tremendous fuel load and uphill terrain, but if the weather has been rainy the past few days, your chances of any significant fire are remote. However, if you change just the climate component to a couple of weeks of warm weather at that same location, the conditions will be dramatically different. There are all manner of complicated fire behavior formulas that can apply, but these have little practical value compared to personal knowledge in the initial attack phase of a vegetation fire.

I prefer a more basic approach to fire behavior prediction. A simple 10 mph wind may not seem too severe, but that translates to air currents moving at 880 feet per minute. If we know from our area familiarity the fire scene has fine, light, flashy fuels, it is quite possible the flames are advancing at a substantial rate. If the fire is advancing just 100 feet per minute (it likely is moving faster) and you have a 10-minute response time, the flames will have spread 1,000 feet by the time first-due units arrive.

A good pair of firefighters can make a 500-foot progressive hose lay up moderately steep terrain in eight to 10 minutes, or about 50 feet per minute. In the above described fire, this means that the head of the fire is going to be 1,000 feet past the ignition point AND moving faster than good firefighters can initially extend hose across moderate terrain. You will also have water supply considerations. You’ll need to have either water tenders and/or engines assigned to supply the units pumping the hose lays since their tanks will only last for about 20 minutes of open nozzle time. All this should tell you, long before arrival, is that the conditions at the fire will require multiple engine companies supported by aircraft, dozers, or whatever you can get. These factors increase substantially with more severe winds. Mobile pumping operations can often move more quickly than hose lays, but these operations are limited to flat or moderate terrain with light fuels and sparse brush.

The initial dispatch may have been for a ¼-acre fire, but things can change dramatically by the time you arrive on scene. With all these considerations, even an initial attack force of one command officer and four engines with three personnel on each engine will have their hands full trying to start suppression operations on two flanks of the fire.

Smoke is one of your primary indicators while responding and once you’re on scene; not just the size of the smoke column. What is it doing? Is it traveling straight up? Leaning in a particular direction? What is its color? The direction a smoke column is leaning indicates wind conditions and the direction the fire is burning such as toward a residential neighborhood. Black smoke indicates heavier fuels, while white smoke tends to be generated by light fuels such as dry grass. Separate smoke columns are an ominous sign; you may have multiple fires burning from spotting or an ambitious arsonist. Smoke that rises and then flattens out or mushrooms indicates an inversion layer. This is a layer of air that is “capping off” the region. These are common in valleys. Inversions can be very dangerous in that they may suddenly dissipate, causing rapid air movements and accelerated winds. A leaning wind column indicates wind and rapid fire spread.

Effective command of a wildland incident requires a fire behavior prediction. You need to anticipate where this thing will go and how fast. It is vital that command and company officers are very familiar with their districts. If you’re responding to the above scenarios, which are common conditions across this country, call for additional resources immediately for fire suppression and structure protection. Know the conditions in your area, and check the weather predictions every day!   

For Part 2, click HERE

 

Demetrius A. Kastros is a 42-year fire service veteran and a semiretired shift battalion chief from the Milpitas (CA) Fire Department. In 1974, he was among the first group of firefighters in the State of California to be certified as an emergency medical Technician (EMT). Kastros has a college degree in fire science and is a state certified chief officer and master instructor. He continues to work in fire service-related activities. He is the lead instructor for the City of Monterey (CA) Community Emergency Response Team program. He has been published previously in digital editions of Fire Engineering.

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